AUGUSTA — When Lew Purinton opened Harvest Time Natural Foods 40 years ago, his prime motivation was not to build a successful business so much as a desire to have, and share, healthier natural foods in Maine when, back then, buying tofu meant a trip out of state.

Since then, natural foods have become more prevalent with at least some organic items available at mainstream supermarkets, and widely available for order through the Internet.

All the while Harvest Time has maintained its focus on providing healthy natural foods and other items to its local, loyal customers who know if they have questions, the workers there likely have answers.

Despite — or perhaps because of — that focus on customers’ health over the financial health of the business, the Augusta health food store has found success and grown steadily over the years, moving to larger locations and now employing some 15 workers.

This year the store, located on the edge of the Capitol Shopping Center between Capitol Street and Western Avenue, was recognized by the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce with its President’s Award.

“I got into it not because I was a business person, but because I philosophically believed in the concept of what natural and organic is all about,” Purinton said. “The business definitely started slowly. Then we grew, slowly but surely, over time.”

Purinton has since been joined by his wife, Karen, and co-owners Scott and Debbie Kenoyer in the business, and they and their employees, some of whom have worked there more than 20 years, maintain that philosophy that customers — and their health — come first.

“We’re not in it to get wealthy. We’re in it to make a difference in people’s lives,” Karen Purinton said. “We’re very kind. That’s what sets us apart, because we really care about people. We go above and beyond, and everyone who works here knows that.”

Peter Thompson, president of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce, said Harvest Time Natural Foods started in downtown Augusta and has grown to meet the demand for healthy natural foods and other products, such as supplements, vitamins and beer and wine-making supplies, in central Maine.

“They’re a unique organization that has been very attractive for foodies who are very specific in their wants and needs, both for food and other items,” Thompson said. “They’re loaded with stuff. They’ve grown the business very successfully, focusing on food quality and nourishment.”

Karen Purinton said the business, which moved from a smaller spot nearby to its current, larger location in 2003, has remained successful despite the increased availability of natural foods in more mainstream supermarkets because of the expertise and customer service the store and its employees deliver.

Purinton said when clerk Alex Kenoyer, son of co-owners Scott and Debbie Kenoyer, sees a regular customer parking, sometimes he’ll start assembling for them the items they usually buy, so they’re ready and waiting for them when they come in. She said they’ve delivered to customers in their homes items they were too sick to get to the store to buy. They fulfilled the request of a customer who called to say her husband was on his way to the store and could they please assemble the items on their shopping list so he wouldn’t have to search for them. They’ve also given food to customers who lost their food stamps.

The business will also special order less-popular items for customers.

Lew Purinton said he’s not bothered by the increased availability of natural foods at larger supermarkets. He said officials of those stores will go to a natural products distributor and say they want their top-selling items without really knowing or caring what those items are, just that they are top-selling.

“My husband’s philosophy — and I believe it as well — is the more people have access to good food, the healthier people are going to be,” Karen Purinton said.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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